Joy nestled among the challenges

Posted Jun 19, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By John Allen


John AllenWhile preparing for ministry, I heard a lot of despair about the church. I somehow internalized a sense that going into parish ministry would be like going to war with an institution that needed to be dramatically transformed before it could be of any value to the world. Conversations about the decline and death of the church are daily bread for seminarians. So how surprised was I when, in my first few months of ministry, I fell in love! I fell in love with my church and with the work of being a pastor.

Somewhere along the line, I had persuaded myself that religious communities were the adversaries of clergy. But once I was living my life as a pastor of God’s people, I realized how deeply I depend on them. We are partners in ministry. The church is not a body of curmudgeons who need to be dragged unwillingly into the future. They are the repositories of God’s wisdom, the agents and feet of God’s work, the witnesses of God’s grace.

This love has not stripped me of my passion for change. I still think churches need to behave less like cloistered social clubs and think intentionally about engaging the ordinary lives of people in their communities in meaningful ways. I still feel an intense urgency to participate in making God’s justice real for marginalized communities. I still expect that unless the way we worship shifts substantially, fewer and fewer people will have access to the divine through our rituals. What I have learned, though, is that loving the church will position me to lead these changes.

Now I feel deeply committed to doing this work alongside a community that may not imagine this future in the same way that I do. I have learned to be comfortable living in covenant, letting God’s people lead me just as often as I lead them. We can discern together how we might respond to God’s call in this generation.

The Gospel According to Mark ends this way: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” A generation later, Matthew revised this final scene: “They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples.” The difference between telling no one and sharing the good news with all the world is not the removal of fear, but the recognition of joy.

As a pastor, before I could help guide God’s people into a deeper and fuller future, and before I could learn to proclaim the good news that lies at the heart of our faith, I had to discover the joy nestled amongst all the challenges of Christian ministry. Like when a moment of prayer changes the tenor of an entire meeting, or when someone bewildered by grief finds a way to speak, or when tear-soaked lips confide something they could not speak to anyone but God. In these moments I am in awe of God’s people, their capacity to be transformed, and their earnest seeking for what they know they need from God and from one another.

Do church people ever frustrate me? Of course. Do I wish that there were some things I could just change without enduring the inevitable conflict? Every day. I was ready for that, though. I was not prepared to love the church. Now I love them so much that I want all of us—together—to find a way to make God’s love and justice so real that there is simply no denying it.

John Allen is a Pastoral Resident at the Wellesley Village Church in Wellesley, MA. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Wendy King 19 Jun


     I am so proud and impressed.  It's a joy to read your powerful words!

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